Essay | World Food Forum: Assessing the youth role in food systems transformation

All of the many policymakers and government leaders participating as delegates on the first day of the World Food Forum.
All of the many policymakers and government leaders participating as delegates on the first day of the World Food Forum.

Kailey McNeal

Related Topics:
Climate, Colleges & Education, Food, Policy, Sustainability

In October 2023, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) hosted the World Food Forum (WFF) in Rome, Italy. I attended the forum as one of six graduate student delegates from the George Washington University. As someone who is passionate about transforming food systems for the benefit of racial justice and animal protection, I was eager to connect with other young advocates globally on these issues. While the forum provided opportunities to share ideas with other young people engaged in bettering food systems, I was disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement of the role that systemic factors play in the transformation of food systems. 

This year’s theme was “Agrifood systems transformation accelerates climate action.” Through this theme, the FAO acknowledged that the systems that produce, store, transport, and distribute our food affect climate change and that meaningful climate action requires that we change the systems. The WFF participants were each part of one of three sections: science & innovation, investment, and youth. Delegates from each section participated in panels and discussions to develop policies and strategies to achieve climate-friendly food systems transformation. 

Room for improvement

Despite the theme’s focus on systems transformation, the sessions in the youth track centered around actions such as entrepreneurial ventures, home gardens, and backyard composting and lacked substantive conversations on how to reform regulatory schemes or incentivize corporate entities to change their practices. Changing any system inherently entails action at the individual and systems level, requiring a change in the context in which individuals act. 

Despite many countries having government representatives present to attend the other two tracks of the WFF, these representatives were either absent or silent in all of the policy sessions that I attended. As we (students and policymakers) were all delegates to the forum, I expected to have the opportunity to engage with the actual policymakers from our respective countries to exchange ideas and learn about each others’ priorities. 

The main policy sessions for the youth delegates were the six regional assemblies’ discussions of their policy priorities, selected by their respective youth policy board members. Each regional assembly represented a different area of the world: Near East and North Africa, North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and Africa. Youth delegates from each region were invited to attend their specific regional assembly, where they would engage in round-table discussions about their regional priorities with their fellow delegates and youth policy board members. 

A page detailing the central theme of  North America's policy priority is projected on a circular section of a wall.
The North American Regional Assembly. (Kailey McNeal)

North America’s policy priority was, “Ensure inclusive, healthy and sustainable feeding programs at schools, nurseries, and colleges that are procured from local producers and provide food education.” While there are many opportunities to transform the food system in North America through the procurement and distribution of school food, our youth leaders emphasized that our policy solutions should focus on changing individual students’ dietary choices. This assumes that: (1) students’ individual dietary choices will mitigate climate change AND (2) that students have options from which to choose. 

Regulations, policies, and legislation – not individual students – determine whether schools have climate-friendly food or whether the agrifood businesses that produce the food must mitigate their harm to the climate. These systems are, in part, influenced by the choices that consumers and constituents make, but these systems also largely control individuals’ choices by greatly limiting their options. 

The student leaders did not purport to represent the FAO or its priorities. But, the WFF did give them the responsibility to select regional policy priorities and lead the brainstorming sessions. Moreover, the absence of FAO leaders or any other government officials or policymakers in these policy sessions reinforced the idea that youth delegates were kept from an important part of changemaking and relegated only to individual actions.

The FAO’s food options were a perfect example of the fact that individuals only have as much choice and autonomy as the systems in which they operate choose to give them. As a vegan, I use my individual choices as one method of food systems and climate change activism. However, the WFF failed to provide vegan options for delegates. Some days, even the vegetarian options were scarce or non-existent. 

Several of the WFF sessions highlighted the negative impact that the production of meat and animal products have on the environment and yet, if a WFF delegate wanted to take what they learned in the sessions and use it to empower their individual choices in the FAO cafeteria, they would be left feeling powerless and confused.

The youth role in breaking systemic barriers

None of this is to say that youth can’t change systems. Or that only a select few people have the power to change the systems. Students have immense power to organize and engage in collective action movements that can radically transform and upend our exploitative and climate-harming agrifood systems. But this kind of transformative change can only happen when we are honest with ourselves about the power structures at play and about the effective absence of choice that we have in our current system.


A full chambers of members of the Youth Regional Assemblies discussing their priorities regarding agrifood systems.
All of the Youth Regional Assemblies discussing their priorities. (Kailey McNeal)

The WFF gave youth from around the globe the opportunity to come together and get energized about the climate and reforming our agrifood systems. We learned about the work that our peers across the world engage in and how we can adapt our own activism to involve more of our global community. 

Though institutions can sometimes hinder systemic transformation, the way that these events facilitate the development of personal relationships is a critical aspect of systems disruption. Connecting face-to-face with other young people over our shared passions for just and sustainable food systems humanizes these systems and fosters creative reimagination of how we feed our world. 

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